In 2008, the American publication of Stieg Larsson’s surprise Swedish bestseller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo sparked wild speculation about the popularity of bloody thrillers in Scandinavian countries generally known for their low crime rates. If Larsson’s follow-up, The Girl Who Played With Fire, can be said to draw a map to Sweden’s national psyche, it leads to an ocean of patience with a deadly current. The novel toys with its vast cast even longer than its predecessor does, but offers a more deliciously convoluted payload of sex and scandal for his protagonists on the far side of a triple murder.
Mikael Blomkvist, the disgraced journalist whose post-prison job fueled Dragon Tattoo’s plot, is back in the editor’s chair at Millennium, once again a thriving, profitable magazine. He’s forging ahead with an ambitious new book project and an illicit office affair. His former assistant, Lisbeth Salander, has cut ties with him to rebuild her life in Stockholm while keeping tabs on her sadistic state-appointed guardian, Nils Bjurman, whose life lay in Salander’s hands at the conclusion of Dragon Tattoo. Then she re-enters Blomkvist’s life as Sweden’s highest-priority fugitive, with physical evidence linking her to three deaths, including Bjurman’s. To the tabloids, she’s a cold-blooded psychopath, but Blomkvist believes she can help find the real killers, if he can get to her before the manhunt does.
The Girl Who Played With Fire indulges itself by nudging its characters into the exact places where, when a crime is committed, the shock waves will reach them. The waiting through domestic dinners and unremarkable vacations is almost unbearable; only a profoundly confident author would dare send Salander to IKEA and rattle off what she bought by product name, confident that readers will follow along. But as much as Dragon Tattoo traced Blomkvist’s mental and emotional fight to redeem himself in the eyes of an unfeeling world, Girl Who Played With Fire tunnels into Salander’s psyche and brings forth childhood horrors the likes of which the Vanger family were never forced to face. While the police rebuild her past and find cause for murder, Blomkvist wonders how Lisbeth could have survived with her talents intact. Larsson stays close by his creation, a failure of the system whose actions expose its errors, and allows her barely controlled anger to fuel the plot to furious speeds.